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Canada moves ahead with front-of-package labeling

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Canada is taking steps to implement its new, mandatory front-of-package (FOP) labeling requirements for food products, and those changes may affect existing FOP food labeling formats, including the “Facts Up Front” initiative by the Grocery Manufacturing Association (GMA) and the Food Manufacturing Institute (FMI).

According to a Nov. 22 report by USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) Global Agricultural Information Network (GAIN), Canada has moved on to the next step of implementing a new mandate that will require food manufacturers to use FOP symbols to warn consumers about high levels of sugars, sodium or saturated fat.

According to the report, Health Canada was set to close bidding on a graphic design contract for the new FOP labels in October, with design work set to begin immediately following bid approval.

Graphic design activities are expected to continue over the next two Canadian fiscal years (which run April 1 through March 30) and the new FOP labeling requirement is set to go into effect in 2021, along with other previously approved nutrition changes.

The design process now will focus mainly on adapting new FOP labeling symbols from a number of stock symbols, and Health Canada has indicated that 168 symbols have been compiled, accounting for different sizes, permutations, and nutrient combinations.

According to the GAIN report, depending on the design process, 200 variations of symbols may need to be developed.

Health Canada, however, has also indicated that two existing FOP labeling symbol formats will also have to be modified to meet the country’s new requirements: The Australian Health Star Rating FOP labeling system, which uses a five-star rating to identify healthy foods, and the “Facts Up Front” voluntary FOP initiative developed by GMA and FMI.

Launched in 2011, the Facts Up Front initiative was developed to list calories, saturated fats, sodium and sugar in each serving on the front of food packages, as FDA was considering whether to regulate FOP labels.

The Facts Up Front label summarizes important nutrition information from the Nutrition Facts Panel and places it in the front of food and beverage packages. The label includes four basic icons (for calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars), which represent nutrients that should be limited. The four basic icons are always presented together, and certain labels can also include up to two “nutrients to encourage,” such as potassium, fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium and iron. 

The Facts Up Front initiative included a national education campaign in 2014 and as of October, 120 companies were using the label.

The GAIN report, however, does not specify how the Facts Up Front symbols may be modified to fit Canada’s new FOP efforts. The plan is to finalize the symbol design in 2018.

The new FOP labeling mandate is part of Canada’s ongoing efforts to promote public health by improving and updating food product labels.

It all started in 2016, with the release of new Health Canada regulations mandating a range of updates for the nutrition labels of all food and beverage products sold in the country. Changes included updating Daily Values, adding and deleting nutrient declarations, making serving sizes consistent and applying new requirements for how sugar ingredients should be listed on nutrition labels. Canadian officials gave companies five years to comply with the new mandate.

In October 2016, Health Canada also came up with a plan for mandatory FOP labels, specifically focusing on three nutrients, high levels of which raise public health concerns: sodium (which is connected to hypertension), sugar (associated with diabetes) and saturated fatty acids (which can cause obesity).

The agency set initial threshold proposals for mandatory FOP labeling at 15% daily value of the nutrient for prepackaged foods and at 30% daily value for prepackaged meals. This corresponds to 345 milligrams of sodium, 3 grams of saturated fat and 15 grams of total sugars per reference amount for “high in” FOP labels in prepackaged foods and to 690 milligrams of sodium, 6 grams of sugar and 30 grams of saturated fat in prepackaged meals.

Health Canada is currently in the process of selecting symbols for FOP labeling and is considering four possible strategies, which include a combination of octagons or triangles with text and exclamation points to convey the message to consumers.

The agency held a public consultation on these options from November 14, 2016 to January 13, 2017 in addition to conducting meetings with various industry groups.

Proposed approaches to Canada’s FOP labeling have divided consumer advocacy groups and food industry representatives, with consumer advocates generally supporting the “high-in” FOP labeling approach.

Industry raised concerns

Industry groups, however, have raised concerns about the new labeling system and suggested Canada follow an approach similar to GMA’s Facts Up Front that would help align FOP labels in Canada with those in the United States.

Industry also noted the proposed approach only allows for a negative focus and, unlike Facts Up Front, provides no options to highlight beneficial ingredients. Additionally, industry saw some of the proposed symbols as problematic, as hexagons are generally associated with stop signs.

Another issue for food businesses was that products rich in many “good” nutrients, but with naturally occurring higher levels of fat and sugar, would be subject to FOP labels, while nutrient-deficient products could be exempt.

Health Canada, however, has stated that the FOP labeling symbol design process is ongoing, that label claims about vitamins and healthy nutrients would still be permitted on the front of the package, and that more consumer research would be completed before designs are finalized.

European labelling scheme launched

This week, six global food giants - Coca-Cola Company, Mars, Mondelez International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever - launched their new colour-coded nutrition label designed to give consumers additional information about the sugar, salt and fat content of their processed food, based on portion sizes.

The scheme has met with resistance from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), who support colour coded labeling, such as the UK traffic light system and France’s recently-launched Nutri-score label, they reject any move to base nutrition information on portions. 

“We oppose moves to use portion sizes for colour-coded nutritional information. Not only will this make it harder for consumers to compare foods, but it is also likely to mislead them as to the nutritional quality of the product," three NGOs, including BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, said.

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